The sound of jackhammers are drumming in the background as Wayne Zimmer conveys a sense of enthusiasm for the transformative work taking shape at Seven Generations Education Institute in Kenora.
“It’s going to be a little noisy for the next six months and hard to work,” said Zimmer, the director of apprenticeships and essential skills, “but it’s an exciting time.”
A former high school gymnasium is being converted into a conference and performing arts centre.
Since Seven Generations acquired the former Lakewood high school in 2014, extensive and ambitious floor-by-floor renovations have taken place to convert classrooms into office and other multi-purpose space to lease out to other organizations.
The sprawling 80,000-square-foot campus also serves as a training hub for various programs offered by the Aboriginal education centre.
Demolition work inside the gymnasium began in early December and continued into late January before structural work is scheduled to begin on the $2-million projects in February.
Contractors began tearing away at the masonry of the old change rooms to enlarge the floor space from 5,000 square feet to 8,000.
The work was awarded to Solid Construction of Kenora with David Nelson named as the architect.
Dubbed the Manidoo Baawaatig Conference Centre, a major feature will be the installation of telescopic seating that can be retracted to clear space for a convention or trade show.
The main auditorium floor will offer floor seating for an additional 100, with more space up top on an upper mezzanine level to seat 60 to 70.
The gym’s old flooring will be replaced, new finishings will be applied to the stage, new windows installed to allow natural light in, along with acoustic walls and ceilings, and a modern plug-and-play audio-visual and videoconferencing system.
New restrooms will be constructed that Zimmer said will be airport terminal quality.
Onsite catering will be provided by the culinary program at Seven Generations.
The contractor pegs completion by the end of July.
“We had conferences booked for June that we had to reschedule for October,” said Zimmer.
“We’re booking up already. It’s coming fast and furious.”
Handling the bookings will be Mark Duggan, the former manager of Kenora’s Lakeside Inn, who was named the facilities coordinator.
Zimmer expects a steady flow of bookings based on their educational and social service tenants who can lure conferences to town.
The campus houses the Keewatin Patricia District School Board; Kenora Chiefs Advisory, a council administering the social service agencies for 14 communities; the Kenora Association for Community Living; and a mix of other Aboriginal programming organizations.
Kenora’s economic development and tourism strategy is focused on making the community of 15,000 a four-season destination. But a lack of adequate meeting space has been problematic in chasing corporate and sports events.
What role the conference centre plays in the city’s meetings attraction plan is unclear, Zimmer said, since they’ve no discussions about any joint marketing efforts to promote their facility.
“We’ll see how we can collaborate with the city.”
The City of Kenora is currently weighing conceptual plans to expand its Rec Centre with a twin-pad arena and a possible hotel.
The proposed 60,000-square-foot twin-plex will contain 1,700 seats with 14,000-square-feet of multi-purpose space to host community events, sport tournament banquets and serve as a home for the performing arts.
“We’re not really looking at conferences per se,” said Kenora’s recreational manager Colleen Neil. “It’s really not our market.”
The Event Centre would be more suited for art shows, farmers’ markets and sports banquets.